If you’re looking for a break from comedies or mopey romance dramas, then check out Korea’s 2009 hit drama, Iris. It’s a twisted mix of espionage, conspiracy, action, romance, and mystery. There are 20 episodes, each ending with a major cliff-hanger, an upcoming showdown, and more questions that complicate relationships. It’s a story of betrayal, revenge, fate, love, and domination.
Lee Byung Hun as Kim Hyun Joon (SK, NSS agent, Assassin)- Former soldier with the Special Forces, Hyun-Joon gets recruited to the NSS, a national security administration for SK, because of his strength and insight. He knows little about his mysterious past, but unfortunately learns he’s a target to be killed.
Kim Tae Hee as Choi Seung Hee (SK, NSS expert profiler)- Respected as ‘team leader’ of NSS, Seung-Hee is integral in recruiting Hyun-Joon. Beautiful and smart, she quickly becomes Hyun-Joon’s love interest.
Jung Joon Ho as Jin Sa Woo (SK, NSS agent)- Best friend and ‘brother’ of Hyun-Joon, Sa-Woo has experienced life’s ups and downs alongside his close buddy. Also recruited into NSS, Sa-Woo finds himself working with and eventually fighting against Hyun-Joon. Both men fall in love with Seung-Hee, setting off feelings of jealousy and selfishness.
Kim Seung Woo as Park Chul Young (NK, Top Intelligence Agent)- The main man of NK’s security team, protecting top leaders at diplomatic meetings. He’s an avid supporter of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPA) of the DPRK. He works alongside his superior, the Chairman, as the North-South issue escalates.
Kim So Yun as Kim Sun Hwa (NK, Spy)- Working alongside her superior Chul-Young, Sun Hwa takes orders and protects important political leaders. Sharp, skillful, and strong, Sun Hwa assumes her responsibilities and kills when necessary, but her feminine, emotional side gradually dominates.
T.O.P as Vick (Assassin)- One scary guy; he kills with precision and without mercy. Obeying orders from an underground organization and a hidden Mr. Black, Vick mounts killing sprees to eliminate important people and sensitive information.
Here’s an attempt at a concise synopsis to a convoluted drama. Best friends Hyun-Joon and Sa-Woo become top agents to the National Security Service (NSS) of South Korea after gruesome torture to test their strength and willpower. Aside from their line of work, they have independently encountered Seung-Hee before the recruitment, each vying for her affection after meeting her again in NSS. Initially, Seung-Hee resists Hyun-Joon’s advances, but begins to fall in love with him. In one scene, she asks, “Do I seem easy? Or does NSS sound like a joke to you?” in an attempt to discourage his pursuits. He responds frankly with his reason for entering, “Risking my life to carry out those missions, isn’t because of deep ambition. It’s that, for the first time, I felt something was exciting. After barely managing to find this path, I had a thought ‘Ah, this must be my destiny.'” He commits to what he finds exhilarating in his work, up to the ‘bitter end.’ His devotion, honesty, and daredevil attitude are what charms Seung-Hee.
They meet Director Baek San (Kim Yeong-Cheol), who describes NSS’s purpose: a SK-secret organization that works to thwart foreign threats and terrorism and protect national security interests. After their first successful mission in protecting the presidential candidate, HJ & SW are invited to the Blue House. Here, HJ experiences deja-vu, flashbacking to images of his childhood. Puzzled, HJ cannot shake off the strange sense of familiarity. Briefly, we enter Shanghai, where assassininator Vick makes his appearance and kills off an central political figure. He plans to move on to his final target, Hong Seung-Ryong, a North Korean scientist leading a nuclear arms initiative.
After the success, the three agents get vacation time. As SW hops on an unexpected mission to rescue Hong in Hungary, the lovebirds HJ & SH take an excursion to Akita, Japan. Little do they know their brief stint at happiness… In one scene, SH shares a classic Japanese legend of Lake Tazawa. Along the shore stands a bronze statue of beautiful Lady Tatsuko. Legend says she drank special water and fell under a magic spell. She became a guardian dragon for the lake. Likewise, Taru, the lover, became the guardian dragon for Lake Tohada. Though sadly separated, both lovers meet every winter to reunite and share their love. Due to their everlasting, passionate love, the waters never freeze, in spite of Akita’s frigid, blustery winters. SH reflects on their great love, and yet, they survive as monsters. SH and HJ both love each other deeply, but with their jobs, SH fears they will become monsters themselves. Will they break apart like the dragon lovers and roam in sadness and suffering?
Upon return, the 3 agents are sent to Budapest to protect Hong, while the Blue House considers granting Hong political asylum. After much action and danger, they manage to safely bring Hong to several agents who will take him to the South. However, another surprise kill foils the plan, as HJ is handed a one-man mission to assassinate a North Korean prime minister. Baek San dictates the importance of its fruition, as it is set to alter the course of history and HJ’s life. Unaware of the dire situation, HJ is placed in ever-greater danger. Suspicious yet?
In Hungary, HJ succeeds and shoots the minister, despite high security regulations. Before escaping, he gets chased down by Chul-Young & Sun Hwa of the NK security team. He sustains a gunshot wound while he is hunted down. When he calls Baek San for assistance, he is abandoned and left to fend for himself. But, Baek San sends Sa-Woo over for help, in the form of an order to kill Hyun-Joon. In his hideout that is getting beseiged, HJ bleeds out and opens the door in relief to find his friend SW, only to then see a gun pointing in his face. An indifferent SW can only manage, “I’m sorry. It is an order.” Betrayed, HJ nearly escapes with Seung-Hee’s help, only to lose her amidst turmoil and a car explosion. Both believe the other to be dead. With SW behind HJ’s endangerment, a saddened HJ attempts to get away via small plane. In another climatic face-off, SW, with almost a look of pitiful ambivalence, shoots down his long-time friend and sees the plane swirl out of control.
Flash forward six months, we find out HJ was saved by a man behind a mystifying voice. HJ was taken in refuge as he recovered from his injuries. Soon enough, he learns of Iris. With nothing, he returns with a great, passionate drive to retaliate against those who double-crossed him and made him lose everything he cherished-his job, his love, his life, and his happiness. He loses his trust in people, but maintains his focus. Amidst talks of a N-S summit and re-unification, HJ allies himself on both ends, with the President, Chul-Young, and Sun Hwa, to disentangle this Iris conspiracy that’s actually plotting to destabilize progress and peace.
Here are a few favorite quotes from the drama…
1. Two graves are needed for revenge, one for your enemy and one for yourself.
2. In order for a person to change, he or she needs to hit bottom. You can get over sadness after you scrape every bit of it from the bottom of your heart. You need to suffer that much to hit bottom.
3. One who lets others bleed will have to pay with his blood. In this world, no one will always win.
4. Living is a worse hell than death.
I really liked how the story plays upon North/South Korea relations, the scary possibility of nuclear warfare. It’s frightening to reflect on the current political tension between the two nations and the North’s threat of nuclear arms development. Imagine the touch of a button is simply enough to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of Seoul. A true weapon of mass destruction. Thousands of civilian lives are sacrificed, all to prevent N-S unification, trigger a military coup-d’etat, and lead to a renewed Korean Republic. That was the plan in Iris. One of my favorite parts-the shootout in the middle of Seoul (KwangHwaMun) between Hyun-Joon & the NK terrorists =) Look out for that… Very exciting and climatic.
With each episode, some other surprises pop out and new questions arise. Who’s this dark Vick character who answers to Mr. Black and kills heartlessly? Who’s the mystery man who’s willing to help Hyun Joon seek revenge, while he joins forces with North Korea against NSS and South Korea? What is this underground military IRIS organization that promotes terrorism? What does the NSS Vice Director Baek San have to do with the mysterious IRIS list? And what about his mysterious past and his dead parents? It’s bizarre that many people from the past and present, connected with nuclear intelligence, are hunted down and killed. It’s Hyun Joon’s fate to uncover IRIS and snip its roots, why his parents died, and why he has been tracked and targeted by assassins since joining the secret service. It’s never safe to trust anyone in uncertain times; your closest neighbor or superiors may be your worst enemy… and HJ is blessed with a detective’s investigating skills, a bodybuilder’s muscles, an Olympic athlete’s hustles, and a wild animal’s intuition and survival mode, all to save the world from a disaster of monumental proportions. Try having to carry that on your back.
It’s also amazing how the characters help corroborate psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience to authority” theory. Before ethics kicked in, Milgram showed that some people do listen to figures of authority, even when it comes to pressing a button to shock the daylights out of those tested. Of course, the shock-receivers were really actors who pretended to be in unbearable pain and the subjects did not know that. Anyway, we have read about the Holocaust and World War II crimes; same issue, soldiers in Japan, Italy, and Germany knew the harm and destruction they were causing to innocent people, but they conformed and obeyed their superiors. In IRIS, we also see how easily superiors influence and control those below them. Whether it’s Sa-Woo taking arbitrary orders from Baek San without questioning too much or the North Korean terrorists risking their lives to set off a bomb to satiate the Chairman’s evil whims and make history. It all comes down to a power struggle and those at the lower ends of the food chain are dispensible anywhere, anytime.
And funny thing is, people play with guns too much; everyone walks around pointing guns like it’s a new trend to greet friends, I mean, enemies.
Especially Vick (T.O.P.)… He is purely crazy and mad in here, with his murderous stare and dangerous aims. Crazy car chases, unbelievable bullseye-shots, and uncanny appearances at all the right places. Popping eyeballs, creepy smirk, piercing stares. Can you believe this guy, the Big Bang hottie who flashes fluorescent colors while dancing to ‘Lollipop”? He who looks like a convict, but is really a fluffy teddy bear at heart? In IRIS, he is the snooping gunsman found near the unfortunate, he who is never without eyeliner, guns, and cell phone.
The ending is a shocker, like a stab wound to the heart. While it is unexpected, the end leaves you confused and rummaging for closure. You feel like frayed edges of an otherwise well-embroidered piece of nice cloth- baffled, unsatisfied, and thirsty for answers. I will not spoil too much detail, but for one, the omnipotent Mr. Black, the root of the Iris conspiracy, is still out there. That means, Iris is still hanging around. It is an open-ended finale that allows for the possibility of the next installment. From what I know so far, it looks like the main actors have signed up for the next season. Iris 2 is in pre-production mode, set for production in March 2011 and broadcast in October 2011. For now though, I’ll be anticipating Athena: Goddess of War this November, a spin-off of Iris (featuring Choi-Siwon from Super Junior and other famous actors.)